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For Old Times’ Sake

Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President

by Jimmy Carter
Bantam Books, 622 pp., $22.50

Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency

by Hamilton Jordan
Putnam’s, 431 pp., $16.95

In 1975, when his ambitions for the presidency were taken seriously mainly by his family and his staff, Jimmy Carter wrote a book called Why Not the Best? It was a campaign biography, but it was quite different from the norm. To begin with, it was the candidate’s own work, the result of drafts scratched out on lined pads in Carter’s small, neat script. It also went far toward revealing the candidate’s personality.

During the period of his public life in which he was politically most successful—the first six months of 1976, when he came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination—Carter’s appeal depended on his personality, rather than on any specific policy he endorsed. In his ten-a-day appearances during those primary campaigns, Carter would establish the fact of his formidable abilities by handling an audience’s questions or sitting down for discussions in small groups.

In his speeches, he ticked off the inventory of his experiences, implying that their cumulative effect would define his performance in office. He was a farmer, a manager, a veteran, a father, a reborn Christian, and a lover of the outdoors. He had run a state government, he had “met a payroll”; he had spent much of his adult life in a tiny, remote town; he was a Southerner who understood his region’s defeat, agony, and redemption. As time went on, Carter was forced, like other candidates, to explain his positions on nuclear-power generation and the constitutionality of school prayer. But from his point of view, and no doubt that of many voters, these were details; the hope that his election expressed was that he would prove to be a decent, competent man.

Why Not the Best? was more effective than any other document in nourishing that hope. Carter described listening on the radio to the second Louis-Schmeling fight, at a time when Schmeling’s victory in the first fight was being taken as confirmation of Aryan superiority. Through the window, Carter saw a group of black people listening outside, on a radio attached to a car battery. After Louis’s devastating win they said, “Thank you, Mr. Earl,” to Carter’s father, who had let them use the radio—and then, once they had moved a respectful distance from the white man’s house, erupted into cheers. Could a man who remembered that scene fail to understand the hopes and hidden injuries that created racial tensions?

Carter told of his bitter early days at Annapolis, in which he would submit to every other form of hazing but not be made to sing the hated “Marching Through Georgia.” Would a man with that determination fail to stick to his guns in office? In the effort to describe his personality, Carter took steps that political dignity usually rules out, such as recounting his fears that he would fail to qualify for Annapolis because of his “last clinging drop” of urine. If this was artifice, it was artifice so sweeping as to give the impression of utter guilelessness.

Keeping Faith is a very different book. It is no less clearly Jimmy Carter’s work than was Why Not the Best?—certain of Carter’s characteristic adjectives, such as “compatible,” “harmonious,” “competent,” “timid,” and “bold,” are an indication, along with Carter’s assurance that he composed the book himself, in Plains, on his word processor. But it is the voice of the would-be statesman that is heard in this book, not that of the candidate eager to explain himself to the electorate. Here Carter is concerned almost exclusively with his policies, rather than with his own personality and values. Of the emotional journey the last eight years must have been for Jimmy Carter, there is little hint in Keeping Faith. Of the moments that seem, from the outside, to have been most wrenching—his retreat to Camp David in the summer of 1979 to reconsider his stewardship, the minuet Edward Kennedy danced on the podium at the Democratic convention before deigning to shake Carter’s hand—Carter speaks only in clipped and unrevealing words.

So, too, of his victorious moments; he says of his walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day: “It was bitterly cold, but we felt warm inside.” Describing his rejection in 1980, he tries to comes across simply as the good citizen and the good loser. Only once in the book do we hear something like a cry of self-justification. In his final week in office, Carter held a dinner at the White House for supporters and friends, one of whom was the cellist and conductor MstislavRostropovich. Carter quotes from his diary that:

Slava Rostropovich gave an excellent little speech at our table, pointing out that the masses of people were often wrong…. He pointed out that the masses made a mistake on November the 4th, as they had when they rejected Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, rejected La Traviata, and in the first performance of Tosca the audience reacted against it so violently that they couldn’t even raise the curtain for the third act. He said history was going to treat my administration the same way they did Verdi, Puccini, and Beethoven. It was beautiful.

Carter undercuts this with a mild joke (“Now that is the kind of speech a defeated candidate likes to hear!”). Still, it sums up Carter’s implicit case: that history will value his work more highly than the voters did two years ago. He does not start from the premise that he has a failure, or at least a disappointment, to explain.1 Carter argues, instead, that the steps he took for the nation’s long-run good proved to be unpopular in the short run, and he was therefore the victim of the difficult times in which he served. In a diary entry from election day, 1980, when he had already been told by his pollsters that he was sure to lose, Carter explains his fate:

Most of the things we did that were difficult and controversial cost us votes in the long run. Camp David accords, opening up Africa, dealing with the Cuban refugees, Panama Canal treaties, the normalization with China, energy legislation, plus the hostages and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—particularly the hostages. Also, the Kennedy attacks for eight months hurt a lot.

Before going further, I should make it clear that I worked for several months in the Carter campaign and was, for the first two years of the administration, the head of the president’s speech-writing staff. After resigning, I wrote two articles for The Atlantic, explaining why I thought the president was squandering his possibilities.2 My place in the White House was far lower than that of speech writers in other administrations, and I had at most a tangential involvement in the events described in Keeping Faith. Still, the reader should understand that, to the Carter camp, my testimony is suspect, since it comes from a man who “cut and ran.”

Carter’s appeal to history’s verdict rests on five main subjects. In increasing order of emphasis in the book, they are: improving relations with China; enacting energy legislation; negotiating the second Strategic Arms Limitation treaty (SALT II); concluding the Panama Canal treaties; and convincing Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to reach agreement at Camp David. Carter also devotes more than a quarter of the book to the frustrations arising from the capture of hostages in Tehran, defending both the patience of his initial response and the attempt at a rescue mission.

The negotiations at Camp David, which themselves account for a quarter of the book’s contents, are the emotional and narrative peak of Keeping Faith. Carter says he took meticulous notes of his every move as go-between for the two mutually suspicious sides. From his notes, he presents an engrossing account of negotiations that verged time and again on collapse but finally were steered toward success.

Carter’s constant theme is the contrast between Sadat, who wasted no time on details and was flexible on all points except the fundamentals (returning Sinai territory to Egypt, agreeing on Palestinian rights to self-rule), and Begin, the least flexible member of his delegation, a man who saw his destiny as securing Israeli control over the West Bank territory he referred to as Judea and Samaria, a bargainer who took nothing on trust and with whom no agreement could be assumed until every last detail was nailed down.

At the beginning of the negotiations, Carter suggested that the three leaders issue a joint appeal for worldwide prayers that their efforts succeed. “Sadat agreed immediately. Begin liked the idea, but first he wanted to see the text. This characteristic response was a prelude to our relationship at Camp David.” Carter says plainly that he came to admire Sadat more than any other world leader. His judgment of Begin, less forthrightly stated but nonetheless quite clear, is that his stony intransigence made it nearly impossible to reach the agreements at Camp David—and may have since undercut them altogether.

The picture Carter presents of himself in these negotiations is heroic, but there is no reason to think it isnot fundamentally true. He took advantage of his “complete compatibility” with Sadat to keep pushing for further flexibility; while he studied a thesaurus and a map of the Sinai to find formulations that would satisfy Begin. After a first, exasperating round of meetings, Sadat and Begin had no further direct dealings with each other until the very end, after the deal was struck. (“There was no compatibility between the two men, and almost every discussion of any subject deteriorated into an unproductive argument, reopening the old wounds of past political or military battles.”)

All the intermediate arbitration was left to Carter. He admits that the agreements have not done all that he hoped. Much of the Arab world publicly opposed them; Begin’s government has proven unyielding, especially about Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why Carter might feel he deserves more appreciation. He went farther than any other intermediary toward reducing tension in the Middle East. His achievements were at least comparable with Theodore Roosevelt’s in ending the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, as were Sadat and Begin. Carter was left off the Nobel list and later turned out of office, an unredeemed “failure.”

In three other matters—the Panama Canal treaties, the opening to China, and the SALT II negotiations—Carter provides less detail but makes an equally reasonable case. Ronald Reagan and the Republicans opposed each of these efforts by Carter during the campaign; but in each instance, they have so far stood by the deals Carter struck—even the terms of SALT II, which Reagan condemned as “fataliy flawed” but has continued to observe, while his own unpromising arms negotiations continue.

As for the “national energy policy” to which he devoted much of his first year in office, Carter argues against the now-conventional wisdom that he brought to the subject a small-minded, antimarket, “limits to growth” mentality. As The Wall Street Journal predictably put it in a review of Carter’s book, “The president and Congress poured vast amounts of energy into this effort when a simple solution was readily at hand. All they really needed was to decontrol oil prices and the problem would have evaporated.” This complaint ignores how much reliance Carter’s plan put on the market—he opposed Senator Kennedy and much of the rest of the Democratic Party in gradually lifting price controls from gas and oil—and how much more costly it would have been, for business and everyone else, had this change taken place all at once. Most American car manufacturers, for example, grudgingly admitted that their survival in 1979 and 1980 depended on the high-mileage cars government regulations had forced them to build.

  1. 1

    By contrast, Taking Care of the Law, by Carter’s former attorney general, Griffin Bell (With Ronald Ostrow [William Morrow, Inc., 1982]), starts from the assumption that the administration failed because Carter let it be hijacked by a Kennedy-McGovern-Nader-Mondale cabal of statists, who ignored the president’s desires to curb the powers of the central government. The decisive moment came, in Bell’s view, when Carter took these disloyal forces to his bosom by giving Vice-President Mondale an office in the White House itself, instead of keeping him at arm’s length in the Executive Office Building.

  2. 2

    The Passion Presidency,” The Atlantic, May and June 1979.

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